National Security Network

Obama’s Nobel: A Vision for American Leadership

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Report 10 December 2009

Diplomacy Diplomacy Nobel Peace Prize Obama War in Afghanistan


Not even a year in office, President Obama has put forth a comprehensive foreign policy that pursues a strategy of principled and pragmatic engagement. While both the left and right have found areas to criticize, this approach has both enhanced America’s ability to work with our allies overseas as well as protect Americans at home.  And while he has achieved several important accomplishments over the past 10 months, it is Obama’s vision for the future and America’s place in the world that will determine his success in office. It is this vision—the promise of building on our best traditions while elevating American leadership—that was laid out in clear terms this morning during Obama’s Nobel Peace prize ceremony address.

Many have questioned whether this award was premature, asking how a war time President can win the Nobel and whether the award was given to Obama the person, not Obama the President. But as President Obama has said, the Nobel was not given to reward past accomplishments, but rather as a “call to action” for the challenges that lay ahead. Obama was unambiguous that those challenges—from enhancing human rights to dealing with rogue regimes to tackling two wars and extremists who seek to destroy global aspirations for peace—are not easily solved.  And that while he may be a war time president, how America wields its power and the message it sends to the world are equally important factors in how the U.S. advances the evolution of peace.  This award, in the end, wasn’t given just to Obama, but to the American people and our unique capacity for global leadership. It was a call to action for the promotion of America’s best traditions abroad. For this President and the country, there is still critical work to be done. Obama’s Nobel therefore underscores American values and our ability to serve as an example for all nations.
In Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Obama explains his vision for the U.S. role in the world. Saying that he rejects the false choice between realism and idealism, President Obama laid out the fundamental principles of his foreign policy.  Recognizing that sometimes the use of force is necessary the president presented guidelines to follow:

We must adhere to the standards of war.  “I believe that all nations -- strong and weak alike -- must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I -- like any head of state -- reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards strengthens those who do, and isolates -- and weakens -- those who don't.”

Militaries have a role in keeping peace. “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.”

We must lead by example. “Furthermore, America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don't, our action can appear arbitrary, and undercut the legitimacy of future intervention -- no matter how justified.”

We must work with our allies. “America's commitment to global security will never waiver. But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone.”

We must bind ourselves to the rules of conduct. “Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard."

More importantly the President presented the pillars for creating just and lasting peace:

Strengthen international institutions and cooperation. “First, in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behavior -- for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one.”

Respect for inherent rights and dignity of individuals.  “For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting. It was this insight that drove drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the Second World War. In the wake of devastation, they recognized that if human rights are not protected, peace is a hollow promise. And yet all too often, these words are ignored. In some countries, the failure to uphold human rights is excused by the false suggestion that these are Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation's development.... So even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal

Development and economic security are vital to greater security interests. “[A] just peace includes not only civil and political rights -- it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.  It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security; it is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. It does not exist where children cannot aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within.”

[Barack Obama, via CNN, 12/10/09]

Amid criticism, Obama sober war-time President.  In the speech the president recognized the views of some critics, saying “perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the commander in chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by forty-three other countries -- including Norway -- in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.”  The President also pointed out that he has obligations to protect America, and that sometimes the use of force is necessary.  “But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their [Dr. King and Gandhi] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.”

It is with this responsibility and obligation that the president conducted a serious and deliberate process for his military decision in Afghanistan.  As the Washington Post explains in a recent article, “On the afternoon he held the eighth meeting of his Afghanistan review, President Obama arrived in the White House Situation Room ruminating about war. He had come from Arlington National Cemetery, where he had wandered among the chalky white tombstones of those who had fallen in the rugged mountains of Central Asia. How much their sacrifice weighed on him that Veterans Day last month, he did not say.  But his advisers say he was haunted by the human toll as he wrestled with what to do about the eight-year-old war... Mr. Obama devoted so much time to the Afghan issue — nearly 11 hours on the day after Thanksgiving alone — that he joked, ‘I’ve got more deeply in the weeds than a president should, and now you guys need to solve this.’ He invited competing voices to debate in front of him, while guarding his own thoughts. Even David Axelrod, arguably his closest adviser, did not know where Mr. Obama would come out until just before Thanksgiving.” [Barack Obama, via CNN, 12/10/09. Washington Post, 12/5/09]

It is up to President Obama and the American people to live up to the ideals of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Obama recognized that we should work to reach the world that “ought” to be.  In his speech he said, “As Dr. King said at this occasion so many years ago, ‘I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him.’ So let us reach for the world that ought to be -- that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.”

This captures the very spirit of the award, whose purpose is to make positive change in the world.  “Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley... saw logic in the Nobel committee recognizing a policymaker at the height of his power, rather than when he no longer can influence world affairs. He likened it to Martin Luther King's prize in 1964, which Brinkley said ‘gave him kind of a platform for action,’” writes USA Today. When the decision was first announced, one member of the five person panel that chooses the winner explained the choice tothe Wall Street Journal saying, “Of course there will be criticism, because he hasn’t achieved his goals yet. It will take time, but this is a support.” And Thorbjørn Jagland, the Nobel Committee chairman placed it in a historical context: “If you look at the history of the Nobel Peace prize, we have, on many occasions, tried to enhance what many personalities are trying to do. For instance, when Willy Brandt got the prize back in the 1970s, he launched Ostpolitik in Europe, which was so important to what happened in Europe many years later. For instance, giving the prize to Mikhail Gorbachev, who changed the world completely. And now to President Obama, who is contributing to improve the international climate.” [Barack Obama, via CNN, 12/10/09. USA Today, 10/09/09. WS Journal, 10/7/09. Thorbjørn Jagland, via WS Journal, 10/09/09. USA Today, 10/09/09]

What We’re Reading

In Congressional testimony, General David Petreaus cautions that the Afghan mission would be more intensive and expensive than the previous status quo. New polling show that a majority of Americans approve of President Obama’s new Afghanistan policy. A recently instituted pay increase of Afghan Security Forces has dramatically increased the number of applicants.

Pakistan detained five American men under the suspicion of being linked to a militant group.

Iraqis are increasingly worried that security is too often linked with sectarian interests and politics.

Iran has accused the United States and Saudi Arabia of kidnapping one of their top nuclear scientists. Meanwhile, Iranian exiles around the world help sustain the political opposition movement by organizing outside of Iran.

The Chicago-area man who is being investigated for links to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks has pledged not guilty the charges against him.  

Attorney General Eric Holder has gone to New York to oversee preparations for the trials of several 9/11 conspirators.

Documents reveal that UN Peacekeepers in the Congo were ordered not to join a Congolese-led offensive against rebel groups for fear of being adjacent to numerous human rights violations.

The fate of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has not been determined by the newly-elected government.

President Obama’s Special Envoy to North Korea, Stephen W. Bosworth, has returned to South Korea following three days of meetings in North Korea.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has promised by next week to give President Obama a proposal to relocate a US Marine Air Station on the island of Okinawa.

China’s economic status in East Asia has neighboring nations concerned that it is no longer a friendly, developing neighbor but more akin to a regional hegemon.

A bomb blast killing 14 people marred the joint visit of the Malaysian and Thai prime ministers to an insurgency-plagued southern province in Thailand.

Commentary of the Day

Roger Cohen argues that the need for a strong US-Japanese alliance is as pressing as ever, even if Japan has elected new leadership.

Azeem Ibrahim applauds the Obama administration for seeking dialogue with reconcilable Taliban fighters.

Lawrence Korb explains why Americans need to pay for the escalation in Afghanistan in order to give them a greater stake in the outcome of the conflict.